Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Hockey Life: Long, long day

After taking a 17-day vacation earlier this summer, I knew I'd have a few remaining paid days off to take in most, if not all, of Colin's travel hockey games this season. With a pair of games yesterday in Oldsmar, I put one of those days to good use.

Thankfully, he didn't have that early of a game, starting at 12:45 p.m. So, rather than getting up at the crack of dawn and wolfing down a travel mug of coffee and one of Lisa's breakfast sandwiches, we all benefited from a rather leisurely morning -- waking up around 8 a.m., having some breakfast, reading the Tampa Bay Times and, in Colin's case, watching some cartoons. Around our house, that doesn't happen too often.

Going in, we knew the day would be long. After his two games, we planned to hook up with some friends, a fellow hockey family playing in another organization, before their second game of the day at another rink. After that, we'd watch that game and, most likely, call it a day. With that in mind, and facing a  45-minute ride to Oldsmar, we left the house around 11 a.m.

It's funny how quickly plans can change.

Once we zeroed in on the logistics and timing, we realized that trying to squeeze in dinner, for a party that could reach at least a dozen people, might be pushing the envelope. Coaches like to have their players at the rink about an hour before game time. Rather than risk them being late, we decided to meet the family at the rink.

Of course, Colin was hungry after playing his games (the team won 4-2 and lost 4-1, and he had an assist in the win). So, rather than dine on processed rink food, we simply stopped for a sit-down meal at one of our favorite chain restaurants, Cody's Roadhouse. With minutes to spare, we arrived early enough for the early bird specials. For the record, my top round steak was pretty tasty.

We caught up with our friends a short time later at the rink. We had seen them earlier in September, at a Labor Day tournament, but really didn't have enough time to sit and visit then. Last night, though, we did, catching up on lives, school and, of course, hockey. During our visit, more friends from last season's organization stopped by to say hello.

In a way, it was like Old Home Days.

We watched our friends' son play and, honestly, shared in the disappointment of watching his team surrender a late-game goal to settle for a 2-2 tie. Even though Colin is with a new organization, and will play against this team in less than two weeks, it's still easy to root for certain kids on the team. And, yes, I'll admit we were doing a little scouting.

Like most youth hockey games, family members and friends of the players gather in the rink's lobby at game's end. It's a time to offer compliments, commiserate over lost chances and, more than likely, catch up until you meet again. Last night was no different, though it was pushing 10 p.m. by the time the kids started to straggle out.

Rather than head home, though, we accepted an invitation to join our friends for a late dinner. Sure, we had eaten about five hours earlier, but, even in my recent health kick of watching my diet and walking for miles, I could always find room for something else. Especially when it meant chicken wings.

After a circuitous trip the the restaurant, arriving about a half hour before closing time, we placed our orders, struck up conversations, watched college football games being shown on a dozen TVs and grew louder, without the benefit of alcohol, by the minute. The next thing we knew, we were the last party in the restaurant.

It was 12:15 a.m.

Understand, please, that I'm not complaining. I live for days like Saturday, when I can sit back, watch Colin play hockey and enjoy the company of good friends. Really, it's one of the most enjoyable aspects of youth hockey.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Hockey Life: Head colds stink

Random thoughts as I wait to find out if this head cold is ramping up or running its course today:

~ Had the NHL not locked out its players, we would've been over at the Ice Sports Forum this weekend watching Tampa Bay Lightning players go through training camp. We're already over there twice a week now for Colin's practices with the Jr. Bulls Peewee A squad, but it's always a kick watching the guys go through some of the same drills as the kids.

As much as we're hockey fans, the NHL is in danger of losing my undivided attention. Our hockey time and money will be devoted to Colin's hockey. Granted, it's not the NHL, but we have pretty good access and a much more vested interest in watching kids play.

Trust me, watching your kid score a goal is pretty cool.

~ Speaking of watching your kid play hockey, I have to pat myself on the back for mastering the concept of managing time off. Between my remaining vacation days, personal days and holiday time, as well as convenient work and game schedules, I'll be able to watch all of Colin's regular season games this year.

Granted, I may miss a tournament should the team decide to play around Thanksgiving, but I should be able to travel to Estero if we play between Christmas and New Year's Day. And the New Year will bring a fresh set of days off, meaning I should be able to travel to Atlanta for a tournament in mid January.

I suppose this wouldn't be as much of a big deal if I had a normal work schedule, like 98 percent of the working world enjoys. But, my newspaper job pays the bills and, with minor sacrifices, allows for Colin to chase his hockey dreams.

~ For years, I never took seriously the fact that I had been diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes. Sure, I took the medicine that my doctor prescribed, but I felt that was all that was necessary. I figured as long as I took them, I could eat as much as I wanted and become one with my recliner.

Pretty stupid on my part, I'll tell you.

Now that I have to give myself daily shots of insulin, adding the expense that goes with it, I'm taking a much more serious approach. I'm eating smarter, loading up on far more vegetables and fish, while paying more attention to things like fewer carbs and more dietary fiber. I'm also exercising more, mainly walks with a weekly goal of 200 blocks. I hit 213 last week.

Not only do I want to eliminate my need for insulin and other medications (and saving us some money), but it also means I'm likely, for good or bad, to be around a lot longer. Who knows, some day I might be able to go back out on the ice and play hockey with Colin.

To me, that's the most worthwhile goal.

~ By the way, I'm thinking my cold has started running its course. No sick day for me. Hoping, though, I don't regret this decision about 10:30 or 11 tonight. If so, there will be no one to blame but myself.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Hockey Life: On my soapbox

Hockey, at any level, is a physical game. There's no doubt about that. From open-ice checks to scrums along the boards, hockey players, at any level, will get and receive more than their fair share of bumps and bruises. It's a part of the game.

What isn't, though, are hits that significantly increase the potential for a player, no matter the level, to get injured. Hitting from behind, one of the more dangerous plays in the sport, is exactly what I'm talking about.

If memory serves, there was a big push, not all that long ago, to eliminate hitting from behind. Hockey is physical enough that senseless hits like this, intentional or not, don't need to be a part of the game. To this day, I occasionally see jerseys with a red stop sign emblem centered across the backs of shoulders.

Apparently, that ploy, nor the concept behind it, hasn't sunk in with everyone.

In the second of Colin's games yesterday, he got absolutely crushed into the boards when not one, but two players hit him from behind just as he was releasing a pass up the ice. No penalty was called. From where I was sitting, and because he is my son, I found that hard to believe.

Granted, he could have gotten rid of the puck a little sooner, as his coach correctly explained to him. And, as he has been told before, his shoulders need to be perpendicular, not parallel, to the boards. In this case, his shoulders were diagonal, enough so that both players were able to catch a piece of him from behind.

Still, the bigger issue, I believe, is the inconsistent approach taken by referees employed by the Central Florida Hockey League. In the first game, one player, one of the bigger on Colin's team, was penalized four times for boarding or hitting in some fashion. The first one was, I have to admit, deserved. The others? I'm not so sure. They looked like clean, solid movements while battling for the puck. Obviously, this pair of referees thought otherwise.

In Colin's case, with a different set of referees, the hit, which sent him head- and shoulder-first into the boards, wasn't seen as a penalty. Sadly, it happened within clear view of one, no more than 10 to 20 feet away. Hence, the inconsistency. I thought that maintaining player safety is part of a referee's job.

To me, there's one way to eliminate these hits from behind. Penalize each and every one, with no regard to intent. Rather than a 90-second penalty, make it three minutes. Taking it a step further, repeated violations, throughout a season and not just a game, should bring progressive penalties. The second time a player is called for hitting from behind should bring a five-minute penalty. A third brings an ejection and a one-game suspension. A fourth, well, enjoy your view from the stands, buddy.

Now, that would send a message.

To say that I'm taking sole exception here today to Colin, or any other player, getting hit from behind would be, in a word, incorrect. Just like a Ronco commercial, where for the next 30 minutes, the next 100 callers get a bonus, there's more. Much more. And this, my friends, is where I'm going to step on some toes.

The game in which Colin got rocked occurred against an all-girls team. And before some of you get your undies in a bunch, I have absolutely no problem with girls playing hockey. Never have. Never will. To me, that's one of the best things about watching our sport, knowing that it's available to anyone to play.

Since Colin started playing organized hockey, he has had at least one female teammate on his squads. And he has been taught, from day one, not to look at them simply as girls, but as respected teammates. In fact, he grew quite fond of one.

So, just to make sure that my point is absolutely clear, we have no issues with girls playing hockey. What we have an issue with, though, is when special rules are granted to an all-girls team that, in this case, led to Colin nearly being seriously injured.

Here in the states, divisions are based on age groups and skill level. In our case, Colin, at 11 years old, plays as a peewee in the A, or lowest, level. We don't have an issue with that, either. As a result, we expect him to play against other 11- and 12-year-old kids at roughly the same skill level. Sounds fair, right?

Unfortunately, that's not the case with this one "special" team. It's allowed to have players up to 14 years old on its roster. For those who don't know, 13- and 14-year-olds are considered bantam players.

With this team, a decision was made by CFHL officials, I guess, to allow the inclusion of older, and as a result, bigger players on its roster. One reason? According to one parent, who has a daughter on the team, it was because it wouldn't have had enough to field as close to a full lineup (at least two lines and two sets of defense) as it could get. So, older players were allowed to, as she put it, "play down," a move endorsed by USA Hockey.

I'm sorry, I don't agree with that reasoning. By allowing that to happen, this team, which draws from throughout Florida, has players who are more physically mature (at least 4 to 5 inches taller and upwards of at least 30 to 40 pounds heavier) than the average peewee player. Skill-level aside, and that team does have a couple of solid players, that's neither fair nor reasonable.

Also, this particular mother said this special exemption was allowed because female players have a tendency to get pushed around by boys in bantam-level games. She specifically mentioned broken collarbones as the result of this mismatch. Ironically, that's what nearly happened to Colin when he got tagged by the two female players, who both appeared older than 12 years of age and were significantly heavier than him.

I won't make any apologies for this, but peewee players, no matter the gender, need to play against peewee players. Same, too, for bantams, mini mites or whomever. There's a reason why these age brackets are in place. Sure, the potential for injury exists at any level. But to slant the playing field -- a rink in this case -- to accommodate a certain gender is unreasonable, sets up unrealistic expectations later in life and, as we can attest, dangerous.

To me, if a team can't field enough players to fill an age-specific roster, it has no business playing in a travel-team league. I'm thinking a majority of these girls tried out for other teams and, for whatever reason, didn't make the cut. So, rather than have their children play at the recreational, in-house level, it's my guess that a group of parents, as well-intentioned as they may believe themselves to be, let their egos get the best of them.

Sadly, one dangerous play shows the ridiculousness of more than the CFHL's decision.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

The Hockey Life: Not feeling it

Two stacks of autographed cards sit on my desk. Out on the dining room table, more than a dozen signed pucks await cataloging, doing nothing more than collecting dust. A scattered pile of photos, some autographed, some not, cover the top of one display case. I see them every day, knowing they need to be put away.

For some reason, though, they've sat untouched for months. Over the summer, when Colin was home, I could understand it. We'd always have something better to do. And that 16-day road trip, well, that was also far more important. And, now, even as I've gained some free time, I give them nothing more than a passing glance.

It wasn't all that long ago, really, when hounding and adding to our collection was a major part of our hockey life. We wouldn't go to NHL or AHL games just to watch. No, it was all about getting items, from jerseys to pucks to cards, signed. There were even Saturday mornings when I'd made a 166-mile round trip to downtown Boston just to get in 45 minutes of hounding.

That doesn't happen anymore.

Part of the reason, I believe, has to do with Colin's hockey. Trust me, too, that's not a complaint. Funding his dream (hell, who am I kidding, our dream) takes up a good chunk of our spare change. That's why, up until a month ago, I was working 60 to 65 hours a week between the paper and my freelance gigs. Even though that has dried up -- temporarily, I hope -- we're finding a way to continue the journey.

Another reason, and this is likely more prevalent than Colin's hockey, was the investment of time it took to hound. Beyond the actual on-site time, often hours hanging out at some hotel, I tried to be prepared, as in having items ready and being able to identify the players. Because we're building a collection, I spent a considerable amount of time researching a player's team history and Vaults 1 and 2 to avoid duplicating autographed items.

Finally, and I said this last season, we still need the NHL to reload. After nearly 15 years of hounding, there are very few players who haven't signed at least one item for us. Sure, we don't mind getting a few extra here and there, but we don't need 15 autographs each from 98 percent of the players in the league. That's why we were choosy in a far fewer trips last season.

Provided there's a season, and we'll know within a week, I'm not real sure how active we'll be. The possibility of a lockout, too, has contributed to my apathy. During the 2004-05 lockout, our location in New England afforded opportunities to get autographs. This time, though, those conditions don't exist.

Should, however, a season take place, we'll try to get in a few sessions. Saturday mornings, when Colin's hockey schedule allows, will be our primary time. I imagine we'll go out for certain teams, too, namely the Buffalo Sabres, Boston Bruins, Winnipeg Jets and most, if not all, of the visiting Western Conference teams.

To that end, I've started buying some cards, picking up O-Pee-Chee fat packs so far. We'll be on the lookout, too, for Score's early offerings. Low-end cards fit the budget. Photos, I'm afraid, aren't even on our radar. As for pucks, I'm hoping to clear out our existing supply before placing an order.

Really, we need more puck cases than anything else. You know, just in case I ever want to put those pucks away.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Getting his stickers

First, we picked up his new home and road sweaters and socks. Then, we added a practice jersey. Thankfully, he already had the royal blue helmet, pants and gloves. All that Colin needed to complete his Brandon Jr. Bulls Peewee A game uniform were his helmet stickers.

Guess he's good to go now.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Sunday, September 2, 2012

The Hockey Life: A new season

To say that Colin's 2012-13 season started with two games yesterday at the 2012 Labor Day Challenge wouldn't be entirely accurate. Sure, it was the first time that he skated as a member of the Brandon Jr. Bulls in a game. And, as far as we're concerned, his performance yesterday started to chip away at his season goals.

But, really, the season started a long time ago.

After learning that he wouldn't continue with last season's organization, Colin took it upon himself, with very little encouragement, to work on his game. He wanted to show that he belonged on a travel-team roster. To that end, this is what he did over the summer:

~ Took thousands of shots out on the back patio, adding a little zip to his wrist and snap shots while improving his accuracy. His slap shot and backhander? Well, they remain works in progress;

~ Skated miles at the rink inside Countryside mall, continuing our Wednesday afternoon tradition, while building up his wind and, on occasion, getting out of his comfort zone. A new schedule, though, has put these sessions on hiatus; and

~ Much to the delight of his Babop and parents, Colin showed some kids, and a few coaches, in New Hampshire that, yes, indeed, kids play hockey down here in Florida. One couldn't believe the state had  rinks.

As a sum, rather than individually, all added up to what we're hoping will be a successful season for his Peewee A squad. To that end, these are the three goals that he has set for himself:

~ Approach each team he plays against in the same manner, by going hard and not letting past disappointments dictate his level of effort. Sure, it would be easy to understand if he had a little extra motivation for certain teams -- not just one -- but our way of thinking is why not go all out every game. Granted, that's easier said than done;

~ Continue being a pest. That's what got him onto his first travel team. So, why stop now? Dogging  opponents makes them work even harder, much more than they normally would want to do. It comes with benefits, too. Disrupting a play creates scoring chances, not just for himself, but his teammates as well. Also, a frustrated player, tired of an aggressive forecheck, is likely to take a penalty; and

~ Improving his offensive skills. Not to take anything away from his defense-first approach, but he wants to build upon last season's under-represented results. If he succeeds in reaching his first two goals, he should have plenty of opportunities to do this. One specific area he's concentrating on will be logging far more assists than goals, a sure sign of being a team-first player.

After Saturday's two games, which the Jr. Bulls split, he's still in the "show-me" mode. Though he had some scoring chances in both games, some better than others, and drew a penalty (likely should have drawn a few more, too), it took him a while to get up to speed, game-wise. To me, that was a bit surprising.

Still, the season is just starting and, really, he is learning his way with a new team. In fact, he had a tournament game starting in a few minutes. As long as he makes an all-out effort, he'll do just fine.